Portland, ME. – It’s almost like someone I knew very well just died.
I’ve been searching for closure of my decision to leave the American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates to pursue other opportunities since last summer, but I didn’t think I would get it like this.
The Hershey Bears sent the Pirates into offseason mode just a few nights ago after winning the best-of-five Calder Cup Atlantic Division Semifinals. Players and their families began to pack their houses to head back home for the summer, and while instead of focusing on selling tickets to the second round of playoffs, business at the Pirates office went back to normal, meaning they were in full swing with the marketing and selling of season ticket packages for the 2016-17 season.
Apparently, the Pirates were offering a three-year price lock for anyone who renewed their season tickets during a certain time frame this spring.
Scott Prue, long-time Pirates season ticket holder and avid fan, had just arrived to the team office at 94 Free Street to pick up his son’s prized jersey from the traditional “Shirts Off Their Backs” raffle held at the conclusion of each regular season. While he was there, he decided to renew his season tickets for the next three years with Director of Ticket Operations, Ben Locke.
“As we got all the paperwork together and signed, another ticket rep got a phone call,” Prue explained, “and from what I heard, she said ‘Wait. What? The Pirates aren’t in Portland?’”
And just like that, the Pirates office exploded in frantic phone calls and emails, within mere minutes of renewing the season tickets of one of their most valued customers for years to come.
“She hung up the phone and was told to head to the locker room,” Prue continued. “Shortly after a coworker grabbed Ben, and two minutes later, he came back in the room.”
“I’m sorry Scott. I guess the team is moving to Springfield,” Locke told Prue.
“I then shook his hand and told him that it was a pleasure to know him and good luck,” said Prue. “I had to unlock the front door to get out, and it was locked again behind me.”
An upset and teary-eyed Prue left the Pirates office, a routine occurrence for the season ticket holder, for the last time. He now wondered how he was going to explain this to his five-year-old son, Westin, whose love for the Pirates is recognized by the entire community, especially the players.
“Now I have to explain to my son that the Pirates are gone and we won’t be going to Portland to watch hockey,” Prue said. “To have an owner say that hockey belongs in Portland and that things will get better in the upcoming years, then rips the rug right from under you… it’s heartbreaking.”
Not to mention the renovations made to the Cross Insurance Arena worth $34 million dollars in bonds, now being funded by taxpayer money, that were completed less than two years ago.
Or the 2013-14 season they spent in Lewiston, forcing staff members, players, and fans to make the 45-minute plus drive up to the not-so-acceptable-for-professional-athletes Androscoggin Bank Colisee, a move that left a sour taste in the local community’s mouth, even upon their return to Portland in October 2014.
Trust me. I was there, and this is the last thing hockey fans and Pirates players/staff expected this spring. However, after years of ranking in the bottom of AHL attendance reports, I wish I could be more surprised.
Other Pirates diehards are also reacting to the sad, shocking, and confusing news.
“After everything the Pirates have endured over 23 years, it was one man who was at the helm for just two and a half years, about 10% of the team’s history, who decided the team couldn’t financially last,” commented Andrew Hart, another long-time season ticket holder in Portland.
But they tried everything. EVERYTHING. After partnering with Shamrock Sports & Entertainment, who gave the team a huge assist in getting their feet back on the ground prior to the start of the 2014-15 season, sales and marketing efforts took off, and attendance for the last two months was the steadiest (and loudest) it had been all season.
Everyone expected that the Pirates’ partnership with Comcast/Spectacor, who took over all sales efforts for the team in July 2015, would continue the upward momentum and improve attendance to well over 4,000 per game for years to come, which now former-owner Ron Cain has been quoted saying that’s what the team needed to at least break even on expenses.
Charlotte Robinson, another longtime Pirates fan and Mainer, can’t believe this is happening again, either.
“It’s extremely frustrating and disappointing. It was a huge ordeal for residents the last time we thought the Pirates were going to leave,” she said. “This is a massive blow to Southern Maine.”
The news of the sale affects the entire hockey community in Maine, even Lisa Mogilka, who has only been a season ticket holder for the last two seasons.
“I quickly made friends, who turned into family. The arena feels like home,” Mogilka said. “That’s how it can make you feel. You are a part of something so amazing. The passion of the fans is nothing like you’ve seen before. It’s something I loved being a part of.”
Mogilka, who I met on Instagram shortly after I started working for the Pirates as their Youth Hockey & Group Sales Manager during the 2014-15 season, used to drive four hours each way to come to games on the weekends during her time as a college student in Machias, a town in northern Maine.
The news not only affects Portland and its surrounding communities, not to mention the dozens of jobs potentially lost, but it also impacts the entire state.
A petition to prevent the team from moving to Springfield, Mass. has also been in circulation.
My heart goes out to the Brad Church, the players and staff, and the entire hockey community affected in Portland, Maine, and the rest of northern New England.
A few of my sources declined to comment. It’s “still too fresh.”
Here are other reactions from the Portland Pirates’ community:
Laurie Romprey: I always looked forward to my Pirates games in Portland. I will be lost without hockey.
Alethia Mello: I’m going to be so lost without hockey or the Pirates in general.
Bill Fyler: I not only lost a team but as a season ticket holder, this became a family.
Diane Lawrence: We look forward to October to see who is coming and going!! Now they’re all going! 😦
Danielle Forgues: The friends that I’ve made throughout the years became more than friends. They became family. Also love the sport and what the players bring to the table.